STEM Report Points to a Means of Economic Security for Low-Income Women

By Margaret Kran-Annexstein

Job opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are some of the fastest-growing industries in the country yet women’s presence in STEM education at the community college level is dropping. Between 2000–2001 and 2008–2009, the number of women earning associate’s degrees in STEM fields decreased by 25.7 percent. Meanwhile, jobs in STEM fields are expected to nearly double by 2018.

A new IWPR report, Increasing Opportunities for Low-Income Women and Student Parents in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math at Community Colleges, proposes solutions for bridging this training and jobs gap for women. The report addresses obstacles faced by women in STEM fields, and how educational institutions and organizations can help women to overcome these challenges.

It is important to encourage all women, but particularly low-income women and student parents, to pursue STEM fields. STEM degrees can be a link to better economic security because they lead to jobs in fields with better pay and narrower wage gaps—a 14 percent wage gap exists in STEM jobs versus 21 percent in non-STEM jobs.

From the report:

Women at the community college level are more likely than men to enroll in educational fields and training for jobs in traditionally female occupations—such as child care workers, health aids, or administrative assistants—with low starting pay, flat wage trajectories, and poor benefits (Hegewisch et al. 2010; Negrey et al. 2001). By contrast, women who train for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields—fields typically dominated by men—see strong economic returns.

I always liked math and science in elementary and high school. However, somewhere along the way, I abandoned STEM education, just like many other women and girls. In this difficult economy, why do so many women steer away from fields that offer so many job opportunities? During the release event for the STEM report, Roberto Rodriguez, a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said that women and girls drop out or avoid STEM education because of a “lack of role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility that exists in STEM fields.”

Sara Manzano-Díaz, who also spoke at the report release event, focuses a lot of her attention on the encouragement of young girls in her role as director of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor. She sees that “education is the great equalizer” and by becoming role models and mentors for girls, we can encourage them to pursue STEM degrees and pave their way to fulfilling careers.

The report outlines steps that community colleges could be taking in order to recruit and retain women, especially mothers who face more challenges in completing their degrees and need flexibility in their study schedules. Increasing the number of student parents studying STEM fields can have lasting effects—not only on the quality of life of a graduate once they leave school, but also on their children. According to her research, author of the report Cynthia Costello found that children whose mothers pursue postsecondary education are more likely to receive college degrees themselves.

Women have made such huge leaps in education equality and this makes their minority presence in STEM fields of study all the more shocking.

The reality that women are highly underrepresented in STEM fields is distressing because those fields are in need of skilled workers in a shifting economy. It is also a missed opportunity to incorporate diverse perspectives in a growing industry.

“We need… more girls who believe they can grow up to invent and to discover,” said Rodriguez at the release event. “Invention and discovery in engineering and science is creative act. It benefits from a multitude of viewpoint…So without diversity we are paying inherently an opportunity cost here because that’s a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, ultimately in constraints that are not understood.”

Margaret Kran-Annexstein is a Communications Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The Path to Pay Equity

By Caroline Dobuzinskis and Ariane Hegewisch

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a class action lawsuit brought against Walmart by six plaintiffs representing 1.5 million employees did not have sufficient evidence to prove a corporate-wide policy in discrimination—and could not qualify as a class action suit for monetary damages.

This is potentially a major blow to the reduction of discrimination by large employers—and an obstacle in making pay equality a reality in the United States. IWPR research has shown that, through class action suits, consent decree litigations imposed on employers requiring changes in policy or behavior can help to eliminate discrimination in the workplace. Transparency and monitoring can ensure that these changes take hold in the long term, and create a shift in corporate policy away from discriminatory practices in corporate hiring and promotions.

Still a Long Way to Go for Pay Equality

The gender wage gap is real and will be around for some time. Women’s median annual earnings are only 77 percent of men’s and, according to an IWPR estimate, pay equity will not be reached until 2056.

Discrimination has been shown to be one of the factors that create the gender wage gap. Even after estimates control for age, experience, education, occupation, industry and hours of work, 41 percent of the wage gap remains.

In principle, the groundwork for eliminating pay inequality was laid almost five decades ago when President Joseph F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act (EPA) in 1963 to prevent pay discrimination against women. In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate in terms of pay or employment conditions, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. After these historic legislative advances, progress in closing the gender wage gap has slowed in recent decades.

Experts Weigh in on Pay Fairness

A recent briefing on Capitol Hill attracted a standing-room-only crowd interested in hearing how to make pay equality the new reality—both in principle and in practice. The June 9 briefing was organized jointly by IWPR and the National Women’s Law Center, and was sponsored by longstanding pay equity champions Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro who recently reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act to both Houses of Congress.

Pay Secrecy Often Goes Hand in Hand with Pay Discrimination

At the briefing, Ariane Hegewisch, Study Director at IWPR, argued that protection from pay discrimination exists in principle. But close to half of all workers and over 60 percent of private sector workers cannot discuss their pay—making pay equality difficult to ensure in practice.  Some workers can face disciplinary action, and even immediate dismissal, if they are caught discussing wages.

Fatima Goss Graves, Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women’s Law Center, noted that the issue of pay secrecy did not receive much media attention in reporting on Walmart v. Dukes despite plaintiffs in the case expressing fear at employer retaliation if they discussed pay.

While pay secrecy policies and practices do not prove the presence of wage discrimination, IWPR’s recent research on sex and race discrimination settlements suggests that pay secrecy and wage discrimination often go hand in hand.

Carol Golubock, Director of Policy at SEIU- Service Employees International Union, added that in principle workers have the right to discuss their pay under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA). Because of weak enforcement and the absence of punitive damages or injunctive relief, however, many employers continue to get away with having explicit pay secrecy clauses.

Paycheck Fairness Act Prevents Pay Secrecy

All experts on the panel at the briefing emphasized the positive changes that could be brought through passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act—focusing in particular on its capacity to prohibit employer retaliation against workers who discuss salaries and wages. The impact of reducing pay secrecy could reach also hourly workers, helping them to ensure they are receiving their due through minimum wage and overtime laws.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would also spur growth in the economy and assist working families. Goss Graves pointed to the wider benefits that equal pay can have on families, especially single mothers, and communities. As overall tax revenues increase, more money is put in the economy, and more money available to keep children out of poverty and address their needs.

Adding to the discussion on pay equality, one panelist presented another facet of the unequal pay conundrum that lies outside of legislation. Lilla Hunter-Taylor, CEO of an employee recruitment company called The Staff Hunter, said she frequently encounters clients seeking women candidates because women do not negotiate as aggressively as men.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Ariane Hegewisch is a Study Director with IWPR.